Updated: Sep 10
Let’s embrace a new perspective. This year for Autism Awareness Month the Autism Society wants to go beyond simply promoting autism awareness to encouraging friends and collaborators to become partners in movement toward acceptance and appreciation. Miracle Playsystems supports this movement by encouraging our customers and our team to push for playgrounds to meet the needs of children with autism as the standard. Children with autism experience the world of play differently than other kids. Even at a young age, children on the autism spectrum are more likely than their peers to line up objects, play by themselves, and repeat the same actions over and over again. They are also less likely to engage in games that require "make-believe", collaboration, or social communication.
This can be challenging for a child to find a safe place to play, where they can feel not only safe but included and not left out of the fun. This can be really stressful for a parent of a child on the spectrum. They have so much to think and worry about when planning a trip to the playground. Most parents don't think anything of it when they pack their child up to go to the park. A parent with an autistic child has to make sure the playground is safe, maybe even has an enclosure like a fence in case their child gets overwhelmed and runs off. They worry about how their child will interact with other children and if they don't interact with them, is there a safe place for them to play alone quietly? A parent also has to be prepared to play side by side with their child or be able to get to them on a piece of play equipment if they need to remove them quickly from a situation.
In celebration of Autism Awareness month, we wanted to highlight some challenges parents of children with autism face along with some requests they have to make their child feel safe and secure at the playground. We've given some solutions and ideas to meet these requests and hope you consider these when designing your next playground.
When a child with autism feels the need to flee from over-stimulation, a fenced playground helps keep the child from leaving the area, keeping them safe and giving the parent piece of mind. It is documented that 80 percent of people on the spectrum will become a runner at some point. Sensory input can become too much and they try to escape. A parent who knows their child is a runner or wanderer is unlikely to take their child to a playground without a fence.
Here are some statistics to consider:
Perimeter Containment Tips
Create a perimeter around the entire play space with only one or two entrances.
Don’t forget about maintenance workers, and make sure that one of the entrances is wide enough for their equipment.
Avoiding horizontal components that can be climbed upon.
Use materials and colors that can be easily seen at night and by people with visual impairments.
Provide seats by the entrances so that caregivers and parents can monitor the entrance.
Jump and Bounce
After fences, the number one request that parents who are raising children with autism ask for in a playground is the opportunity to jump and bounce. Elephant Play, a playground manufacturer in Canada makes very unique types of equipment that fits that bill.
With a durable bouncy center of textile-enforced rubber, Elephant Play’s Bouncing Play structures allow kids not only the freedom to climb, but to fly. Bouncing Play structures combine a unique jumping and rebounding experience that is not common in commercial playground equipment.
Elephant Play's Bouncing Mat is made of reinforced rubber and attached to heavy duty springs which limit the jumping height to 18". The edge of the Bouncing Mat is built out of recycled rubber and thus it absorbs impact like a cushion.
By combining the Bouncing Mat with a versatile exterior rope structure, the Mini, Small, Full, and Jellyfish Bouncing Nets, maximizes activity on the playground. Not only do kids get to climb through an intricate net, its design enables kids to reap their rewards by bouncing. These activities help children with both their vestibular and proprioceptive systems.
Research shows sensory play greatly benefits children with Autism (source: https://www.autismspeaks.org/science-news/study-finds-sensory-integration-therapy-benefits-children-autism). Sensory Play is any activity that engages the child’s senses: touch, smell, taste, movement, balance, sight, and hearing. A child with autism can have difficulty processing sensory information. These difficulties can make ordinary situations feel overwhelming. They can interfere with daily function and even isolate individuals and their families.
A great product that combines many sensory components and is perfect for a sensory seeker is the Sensory Maze from Miracle Recreation. Designed by a child development expert, the Sensory Maze combines the challenge of a traditional maze with imaginative play that enriches and thrills the senses. Children and adults of all ages and abilities, including those with sensory disabilities, can explore the distinctive textures, shapes and translucent colors of these reconfigurable panels by look and by feel, as a group or individually in their own, unique way. Those easily overstimulated by noise or activity can also find comfort in cozy, quiet spaces located throughout the maze.
Features and Benefits of Sensory Maze
Designed by child development expert, Dr. Tina Stanton
Provides sensory experiences for children and adults with sensory processing disorders, such as those on the autism spectrum
Colorful, translucent panels with textured shapes offer additional play experiences and aesthetic appeal
Parents and caregivers can view or join their kids for social interaction and inter generational play
Can be configured to any size, shape, or design for easy installation in new or existing spaces
Reconfigure the maze after the first installation with the Miracle Versalok® clamping system
Optional surfacing can be added to create even more fun and imaginative play environments
Watch the video below for more information on the benefits of the Sensory Maze Panels.
Tactile Play with Sand and Water
For tactile input, sand and water activities work well. You might want to include a very large sandbox, where a child could cover himself with sand. The weight of the sand will calm some children.
Parents who have a child with autism often talk about how much their children like to slide, so it is important to keep slides in your playground. You might want to include different types of slides since different types of slides often provide different sensory input.
Solitary Play in Quiet Areas
There should be play activities that the child can do by himself, while keeping out of the major line of traffic. Play panels such as tic-tac -toe, or a marble maze, often can meet this need.
There should also be quiet areas where a child may go to regroup when they are over stimulated. This quiet area can be made through landscaping or the use of playground equipment, such as a playhouse.
Ideas for a Cozy Space
Choose the least active and quietest places on the playground
Consider how areas under play structures can be utilized for cozy spaces
Consider products like a Playhouse (HAGS), Cave Rock, Bus Stop Bench, Full Enclosure with Seat, and crawl tubes
Landscape features and site amenities can also create cozy spaces
Children with autism often need to work on where their body is in space. Crawling through tunnels is a good activity for this. It may be important to have windows in the tunnels for the caregiver to watch and provide assistance if needed.
Grouping of Activities
Many children with Autism or Sensory Processing Disorders might seek or avoid stimulation. In order to have a sense of control, they should be offered a choice. By grouping noisy activities together and the quiet activities in another area gives them that control and choice. Keeping certain activities together helps encourage socialization and can encourage teamwork, like a seesaw, or even just communicating with another child.
Listen the the Community
It's important to listen to your community and their needs and wants and have them included in the planning process. We hear over and over that more and more parents are attending community planning meetings with concerns about how the new project will work for their child's special needs. It's important to listen to their feedback and figure out a way to make at least some of their needs met in the new park design. Even adding a few items that make a playground more enjoyable for children with autism can have a big impact on their life. When you listen to the needs of these children at the beginning of the design process, you will end up with a playground that can be enjoyed by everyone in the community. That's the ultimate goal, to make all playgrounds inclusive and fun for everyone!